Rob Mahoney’s Magic Piano

Piano man Rob Mahoney performs at a local winery on his digital keyboard, disguised to look like a real piano with the folding wraparound cover he invented. Photos by Phil Houseal

Jan 24, 2018–Here’s some advice for beginning musicians: Choose an instrument that is small and easy to carry.

I made the mistake of playing boat anchors.

First it was drums.

“You can’t serenade your girlfriend in the backseat with a drum set,” said old Frankie Lee Nupp, the 8-fingered guitar player who gave me my first gig in a small-town tavern when I was 17 years old.

Good advice. But at that point it was too late to switch to piccolo. Many years later, I found myself in a band playing piano. Even with the new electronic keyboards coming on the market in the 1980s, it was still a piece of furniture. It was hard to haul up two flights of stairs, and even harder to cram into your hatchback after the gig.

But there was a larger problem. I wanted to play a real piano. While keyboards of the era were beginning to capture the sound and feel of an upright, none looked like a real acoustic piano. In fact Frankie Lee called my Wurlitzer “that electric ironing board.”

But Johnson City musician Rob Mahoney has created a solution.

Mahoney shows his Stowaway FlatStack removed from the keyboard. Photo by Phil Houseal

It is the Stowaway PianoBack. The idea came during a conversation with a friend and mentor.

“He said what I want is to hold up a tablecloth and POOF you have a grand piano,” Mahoney said. Something clicked in Mahoney’s brain. “I looked off into space, my eyes rolled back in my head, and I punted on that idea for a minute. Then I drew a sketch of the back and sides of a piano, that you unroll out of a tube, and BOOM you got a piano.”

The PianoBack was born. It is the image of a piano printed on a durable banner, that weighs less than 3 pounds and wraps around a keyboard to hide the stand, pedals, and cords.

Folded and ready for loading.
Photo by Phil Houseal

Mahoney’s leap of insight is not surprising given his background. He got his degree in petroleum engineering (“the day that industry was over”), he worked in radio for years, played in touring bands for a decade (including with The Killer Bees), hosted an Austin music TV show, and recorded voiceovers for commercials and video games.

These days he lives in a house he built out of recycled materials on the banks of the Pedernales River, and plays solo piano gigs, mostly at area wineries, restaurants, and clubs.

While his “picture of a piano” works well as trompe l’oeil and has been selling steadily for nine years, Mahoney has since created sturdier versions out of wood, mimicking an upright piano (FlatStack) and even a grand piano (GrandStand).

They fold up to be flat so they are easy to transport. Once at a gig, he rolls them in on a dolly and unfolds them to surround his keyboard on three sides.

Mahoney has sold his products to musicians, theaters, high school bands, and touring stars, including the “biggest rock band on the planet.”

But he admits it has yet to be a path to riches.

The view from the keyboard side.
Photo by Phil Houseal

“If you want to get rich, don’t make products to sell to musicians,” he advised. “And this is a niche product, targeted only to piano players, and only piano players that want to look like they are playing real piano. It’s more of an art project, really.”

Amazingly, Mahoney’s piano wrapping fools sophisticated listeners, according to one customer.

“One lady told me that I played better with a real piano instead of using a big keyboard,” the musician wrote on his page. “I guess there isn’t a better testimonial than that.”

Mahoney witnesses it all the time.

Mahoney even has a version mimicking a Grand Piano.

“People are so convinced it’s a piano, they don’t even look down and see that it’s really a digital keyboard,” he said.

I wonder if he could design one that makes a piccolo look like an orchestra?

Details:

Rob Mahoney will be playing at Barons Creek Vineyard on Saturday Jan 27 and Feb 3, and most Saturdays through the year. He can be contacted through his web site www.RioGumbo.com.

Information on his Stowaway products is at www.pianoback.com.